The French nobility no longer exists. Long live the French nobility!
Under the ancien regime the names of the higher ranks of the Roman army came to be regarded as attached to hereditary privilege.
The Revolution abolished the privileges of the crusty old aristocracy on 23 June 1790 but Napoleon and the restored Bourbons created new titles in the 19th century.
Since the inauguration of the Third Republic on 4 September 1870, all hereditary ranks of social superiority have had no legal meaning.
With respect (but not deference), anyone who calls themselves anything more than “monsieur” because his/her family can be traced back to the middle ages is putting on airs.
A “de” in a surname, by the way, can just as easily show pretensions to the aristocracy as genuine class.
All that said, there is still a self-identifying nobility in France that maintains a sophisticated hierarchy.
In case you want to know how low to bow or curtsy when you meet one of these people, here is a short guide to the principle ranks you might encounter, in descending order.
1. Duc (duke)
Leaving aside “princes of the blood” this is the highest rank of the nobility.
Of the many dukedoms created over the centuries, most have become extinct but there are around 40 extant ones still, including the delightful title of the Duke of Cars (Duc de Cars).
Note: it would be impertinent to confuse the higher ranking “duc et pair” (duke and peer) with a “duc simple” (ordinary duke).
2. Marquis (marquess)
The name derives from “ruler of a border area”.
Perhaps the best-known fictional holder of the title is the Marquis de Carabas in Puss in Boots (popularised by Charles Perrault) who is elevated to the nobility through the help of a cat more intelligent than he is.
Certainly the most infamous man of this rank was the Marquis de Sade.
3. Comte (count)
This is thought to be the oldest title of nobility historically speaking. It was placed third in the pecking order by the authorities of the 19th century.
Although Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo is principally about France, the county in question is in Italy.
4. Vicomte (viscount)
What now sounds rather grand began as a job title for an assistant administrator of a province working under a count.
Many vicomtés have merged with other titles over the centuries, reducing the number claimed today.
Several place names have the word incorporated in them such as Vaux-le-Vicomté (Seine-et-Marne).
It’s possible that the name derives from the Old English word for a warrior.
In Brittany, barons are considered of higher status than the rest of France.
The philosopher Montesquieu was a baron. The Rothschilds are another famous baronial family.